Maria Taylor: "I Wanted to Make Sure It Wasn't Too Much of a Mom's Record"
Maria Taylor first came to prominence as a member of Azure Ray. Her luminous and ethereal yet strong and warm vocals and skill in multiple instruments helped to make that band stand out and resulted in Taylor being invited to collaborate with a broad array of artists like Moby, Crooked Fingers, and Bright Eyes. When Azure Ray went on a brief hiatus in 2004, Taylor wrote her first solo album, 2005's 11:11, which received great acclaim.
Each of Taylor's excellent solo albums since have been an exploration questions of existence and universal human experiences anchored in her own life. Prior to writing her latest album, 2013's Something About Knowing, Taylor became a mother for the first time, but rather than toning things down, the experience broadened her songwriting a bit with a glimmer of certainty replacing the pondering quality of her previous efforts.
We recently spoke with the gracious and charming Taylor about how the cover art of the album reflected the shift in tone from her previous records, what it was like working with Michael Stipe on "Cartoons and Forever Plans" and why she still plays her guitars without the high E string.
You wrote your new album in spurts for obvious reasons. How do you think that process perhaps benefited the writing of the music rather than how you did so in the past?
Maria Taylor: I've never really thought how it benefited. But I guess I had time to think about what I had done because I didn't do it all at once. But honestly I was doing so many other things I wasn't thinking about. So maybe it benefited because I wasn't over thinking. The first month of having a baby is crazy intense. Maybe the benefit was that it was purely what naturally came out.
You've worked with Mike Mogis in the past. What do you feel he brings to your work with him?
Oh, man, what doesn't he bring? He's so talented and you know what you're getting with him. He has such a distinct, at least in my opinion, production sound. As I was writing these, I could hear his production, so I knew he was definitely the man for this record. His production is polished and lush but not in a bad way. I feel like lush can have a negative connotation.
On this record, he also tried not to fill out the space too much. With my stuff, and with Azure Ray, space is important also. Mike is also really great at not letting there be dead space, and he will fill it up with the most perfect guitar solo or the most perfect mandolin. He usually gravitates toward pedal steel and mandolin and awesome guitar sounds. I was hearing all of that as I was writing these songs, and it came out exactly how I wanted it to. Once I got into the studio, it was, "Oh, I definitely made the right decision."
He brings a lot of clarity to his production as well.
Definitely. He makes the songs come to life.
You did an interview with the Examiner in 2013, and you said that the new album answered the questions posed on earlier albums. What questions do you feel you posed on your earlier records?
If you listen to Overlook and this one back to back, it's pretty funny: To quote some of the things, "Tell me what I'm searching for, is there really something more that I'm after" and "is it a bad idea, what if I turn 49 with no husband, and what if I turn 59 with no child" -- the whole thing was like "I'm in my mid-thirties -- what am I doing with my life now?" Before that I thought all the records were exploring how life can be awesome and awful.
Most of my Azure Ray songs were about a boyfriend that died and the aftermath. So I just questioned what's out there and what happens. I tried to write it so people could take from it what they needed to take from it and relate to it with something from their own life. I'm sure I'm going to have way more questions. Right now, my life is sort of like I said in "Folk Song Melody." I'm seeing it unfold. I'm married, and I've got a child, and I seek direction where I want to grow, and I see the person I want to become -- those kinds of answers.
You worked with Michael Stipe on "Cartoons and Forever Plans." How did that come about?
He is a friend of mine. I lived in Athens, Georgia, for five years, and he has a house there and spends a lot of time there between there and New York and Berlin. When he would come to town, we had the same group of friends, and we hung out all the time. When I moved to Los Angeles, I was still working with my friend Andy LeMaster who lives in Athens, Georgia.
We were about to go on tour two nights later, and there was this one song where I had the music and one line -- "our love will never die" -- but I just couldn't fill in the rest. We were all going to a party, and Michael came over to our house. I said, "I can't go. I really want to finish this song and play it on tour, but we leave in two days." So he said, "How about if I help you with the lyrics when we get back?"
We'd been friends for a long time, but he had never offered to help. His music and his fame is a different Michael than I know, so I was, just, wow. I didn't think it would actually happen. We went to the party, and Andy and I came home and got ready for bed. I had my pajamas on, and there was a knock on the door, and Michael had pen and paper and said, "Let's do this." So we sat up until six in the morning.
It was so prolific, and we kept writing and had to sift through all these great lyrics to narrow it down for the song. It was very inspiring to see how he worked, and I was truly honored. He must have liked the song enough, even after hearing me play it over and over while we were deciding whether to go to the party or not.
You've been a flexible and versatile artist who has been a part of many collaborations over the years. Do you change how you approach how you work with each project?
I do it the same way. I've been doing this so long in terms of how I write songs and how I sing. So when I collaborate, I bring to it what I would bring to my own songs.
There's a video interview you did with In the Key of Change, and they asked about your favorite songs on the album and you named the title track of Something About Knowing and "You've Got a Way With the Light." Why would you say that is the case?"
I've only co-written twice -- where I write the music and someone else writes the lyrics -- in my career. Once with Michael Stipe and that time with a friend from high school. We happened to be back and living in Birmingham, [Alabama] at the same time. He's a wonderful lyricist. I did the music, and I did the melody, but he did the lyrics, and I felt like I relate to the lyrics like a listener would. I don't think he was writing about my life when he wrote them. There's a confidence when you don't write the lyrics -- or less pressure -- when you sing them.
You've described your new record as happier in some ways. Do you feel that aspect of the songwriting opened up anything in terms of subject matter?
I wanted to make sure it wasn't too much of a mom's record. There were three songs that were pretty blatantly about being a mom, but I wanted to be conscious about that. I really write just like I'm writing a journal entry. It's not even the subject matter that opened up, but I entered another phase of my life, and life or death change your perspective tremendously.
Right now, in my life, I see everything as half full, so I think that is reflected in the album, even though I wasn't necessarily trying to write about my life as a mom, as a wife, as a blah blah blah. Everything kind of seems beautiful right now, and that's kind of how I see it.
I didn't want a bubbly, happy record and my melodies tend to sound sort of somber anyway. I'm just a nostalgic person, and I can look back and daydream about the past and get teary-eyed about missing all my old friends. There's a large element of that in all my songs also.
Do you still play guitar without the high E string?
Yeah, I've been doing that now, for, let's see, since I was 24. I don't like high, treble-y noises, so I've always tried to EQ my guitar and take the the treble down and turn the bass up to get a warm, buttery sound. So I was playing a show and the high E popped off, and I decided to finish the show without it, and I realized, "Oh I like that so much better." I was always trying to EQ the amp so I didn't have to hear that high sound. It drove me crazy. So I realized I didn't ever have to hear it and never put it back on.
A few years ago, my van got broken into and my guitars got stolen and a fan found my guitar in San Francisco and sent me a Facebook message. I ended up calling the police, and they went and got it. The reason I could identify it is that I take the tuning peg off on my acoustic guitars so I don't have a string there but one day I just put a different color one in there to fill the little hole and had five white pegs and one black peg and the person that stole the guitar didn't realize this. But they put a string on before they tried to sell it but didn't change the colored pegs. So I got my Martin guitar back.